Hiking Groups

1:17 p.m. on March 26, 2012 (EDT)
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Having been involved with a few hiking/backpacking groups, both volunteer led and professionally guided, I'm curious how others here see them.

For newcomers, there are good points about them:

  • Social aspects as well as getting outdoors. Make new friends with common interests, and develop strengths and skills while you're at it.
  • A good way to start out. Learn from more experienced members.
  • Always safer to hike with other people in case something goes wrong.
  • Equipment and other resources can be shared. You don't need to buy a tent or stove right away - share with someone. 
  • Volunteer-led groups are inexpensive, and cooperative.

Bad points:

  • Volunteer-led groups are often led by inexperienced people with no formal training or certifications.
  • Bad habits are passed on along with good ones.
  • Event selection depends on the goals of the organizer, and may not be suitable for all.
  • Limits speed and difficulty of hikes to the abilities of the weakest members. Frustrating for fast hikers, and demanding on slower ones.
  • Professionally-led groups take care of some of these concerns, but they are a lot more expensive.

Any other thoughts?

3:14 p.m. on March 26, 2012 (EDT)
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Although I've been on hundreds of group backpacking trips, I've never actually signed up for a guided trip with people like the Sierra Club or NOLS or OB, etc.  I take this back.  Once in 1992 I took out a group from Women Of the Wilderness (WOW) based at Appalachian State University, and we went to Mt Rogers for several days.  No camera, no decent trip report.

Dr Harvard Ayers from ASU also ran his yearly Native American trips into Pisgah NF (Harpers Creek) with Eustace Conway and I attended several of those little backpacking trips.

Otherwise I lurk in the periphery.  It's one thing to link up with a group since I'm out anyway, it's another to have to be "led" or stick to some impossible schedule.  Several years ago I joined the Chattanooga Hiking Club trek led by Kurt Emmanuele for a five day trip on the BMT south around the State Line area.  But here's the thing, they didn't even know I was coming!  It's a good system if the group can tolerate it and leaves me a lot of freedom.

In 2010 I did a seven day BMTA backpack organized by Sgt Rock and Rick Harris and I stayed with them from Calderwood Lake to Sled Runner Gap, a goodly distance.  Once again, they just stumbled onto me.  Let the games begin.  Of course, Rock and Rick knew me from past swarays and welcomed me in the fold.

"Real" trips like NOLS etc would never tolerate such behavior.  And I can't ever see paying cash money, folding money, for a backpacking trip no way no how.

GROUP DYNAMICS

As far as backpacking with groups, well, there are many subtleties involved---

**  Many hikers, especially male, tend to get testosterone poisoning and up the ante---or outwalk their companions.  The Grunt Travail---who can go the furthest or fastest---and this commonly happens in groups as solo backpackers could give a crap and have no one to impress. 

**  Solo "what ifs" happen much more when alone than in a group.  This is a psychological phenom whereby a group does crazy stupid things (boy scouts hiking in a pouring rain on a nighthike in blue jeans and laughing the whole time) versus soloists not having the bravery (or stupidity) to do the same thing.  It's the illusion of safety in numbers which produces the willingness to take unnecessary risks, i.e. group backpacking.

**  I believe individuals in a group should carry all of their own gear---own food and stove and tent, etc.  This teaches self-reliance and is helpful in the future when the backpacker wants to go out alone.

**  Groups, as above, tend to make terrible mistakes.  One is to separate the group in new terrain.  Group leaders make this decision and end up with unaccounted for hikers or lost hikers.  Stay Together and Hump Your Own Load, my advice.

6:00 p.m. on March 26, 2012 (EDT)
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I can appreciate the 'testosterone poisoning' comment. LOL I've seen that too many times.

At the start of a hike, it's necessary to lay out the ground rules, one of which is that the slower people can't go any faster, but the fast people are able to slow down. The goal is to keep the group together, and a group leader's primary responsibility is to make sure everybody makes it home safely. No properly trained leader would let the group split up without very good reason.

Another similar one is peer pressure. I've seen people do a foot-wide cliff traverse with a 600 ft drop on one side, just because they wanted to stay with the group and didn't want to look like they were wimping out (the men).

I also agree about 'humping your own gear'. I don't think any hiker minds helping someone out whose blisters have gotten too bad, or who's just twisted their ankle, but when it comes right down to it we're all responsible for ourselves. I get annoyed by the people who expect the guide to take care of them while they stroll blithely along, and to carry all the heavy stuff for them.

You mention that you wouldn't pay for a backpacking trip, and I think most people here would agree. But there are many, especially tourists hiking in unfamiliar territory, who prefer that someone else takes the responsibility.

8:50 p.m. on March 26, 2012 (EDT)
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Your post reminds me of a quote from mountaineer Rolf Bae called THE THREE RULES---
**  "Get home.
**  Stay friends.
**  Reach your goal."  From  "No Way Down:  Life and Death On K2" by Graham Bowley, 2010.

Problem is, he failed to get home  . . . . .

7:06 p.m. on March 28, 2012 (EDT)
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Peter,

I am a big fan of hiking clubs / groups with regards to the benefit they offer the hiking community in general.

In the late 80's I met a couple out on a trail who told me about a local hiking club they belonged to and invited me along for the next hike. I went on the hike and had a great time, but moreover it was a turning point for me.

Up until then I had a lot of Army surplus & Kmart type gear and there were a lot of things I lacked skill in. Being exposed to these more experienced folks and seeing the gear they had was a real eye opener.

I actually had no idea at the time there were stores where you could buy such specialized gear & clothing. One of the members gave me a Campmor catalog which I just drooled over for days until I got paid and ordered a few things. I hiked with the club for a couple years and then every once in a while after that.

I finally realized I preferred to hike and backpack in smaller groups of 2-4 or solo, and I really enjoyed being in more remote places and having the flexibility to do what I wanted like taking the time to fish the streams along the way.

I think hiking groups offer a good way to meet people, and are a great way for new people to gain skills & knowledge. It's also a good way to get gear exposure and see what is available while at the same time see that gear being used.

I still go on group hikes from time to time, but I prefer the freedom of being solo or with a couple friends.

For the most part I have had good experiences, occasionally you get a group leader who is a little odd or maybe makes decisions you would make differently, but I can't say I have had any bad experiences with a leader.

I do think having outings designed for both beginner and advanced hikers can help solve some of the group dynamic problems, as long as you have a way to screen people such as having all new members go on an easier hike to start.  A "get to know us hike" if you wanted to attach a cutsie name to it.

Mike G.

9:32 a.m. on March 29, 2012 (EDT)
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I think my biggest problem with volunteer-led groups is the wide range of experience of the leaders. I was once the safety Officer for a local Outdoor Club, and I quickly realized how few of the event coordinators had any proper training.

What was offered by the club was 'group management'; picking a location to meet, keeping people together on the hike, and using the club's website. That's a good place to start, but there was nothing on risk assessment or other safety training. Experience wasn't a requirement, just the willingness to take on the job.

I had one person who was determined to lead a group of newbies snowshoeing in a posted avalanche zone, and the club president got a group lost for 11 hours on a mountain hike because she had no map or compass and didn't know how to use them anyway. Since she didn't have a flashlight, they came down in the dark by the light of a single cell phone.

That being said, I agree that groups like that are a good place to start when the hikes are local and the risks are low. For more complicated terrain, new people might want to ask about the credentials of the event leaders, and do some research on their own about proposed events.

1:53 p.m. on March 29, 2012 (EDT)
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I had one person who was determined to lead a group of newbies snowshoeing in a posted avalanche zone, and the club president got a group lost for 11 hours on a mountain hike because she had no map or compass and didn't know how to use them anyway. Since she didn't have a flashlight, they came down in the dark by the light of a single cell phone.

 

Wow. Just…wow.

I don’t think you could make these stories up. I really can’t help but wonder what the heck kind of thought process goes on in these folks heads.  

What little experience I have with group trips has been very positive. Looking back at my boy scout days I really don’t think much of the wilderness skills my scout masters had, but the elder scouts did a fantastic job with the younger ones and nobody ever died. Can’t say we were comfortable, but no-one was ever in any real danger, and we went on hiking, backpacking and even cycle trips.

In the early 80’s I actually took a college course in backpacking! I figured it was an easy credit since “I already knew everything”.

Heh, I did learn a bit as we had a fantastic instructor. Plenty of classroom time beforehand ( looking back I think that really helped many of the totally inexperienced types )  then an easy overnight trip upstate N.Y, and finally a two night trip in the mountains. How that one instructor somehow managed to ride herd on a bunch of college students I’ll never know, but he did a fine job.    

Then one day when I was in the military I was drafted as an assistant scout master for a local troop! The other troop leaders really wanted to organize an overnighter or two, but after spending some time with the kids ( read = Horrible Little Devils ) I knew such a thing would be a total catastrophe. I could barely keep them from killing each other at our weekly meetings, I’m quite sure half of them would never have made it back to town. I dug my heels in and we never went. In my opinion that troop was in no way disciplined enough for even a simple car camping trip, and I was either smart enough, or stubborn enough, to stick to my opinion in the matter.       

These days I get to introduce my many nephews to the outdoors. They are all still terrified of water, so no canoe trips yet ( Kids these days! ). But they are at the point where most of them look forward to easy summer overnight hiking and cycle trips. The eldest at 17 has pretty much abandoned such things and I haven’t gotten him back out into the woods in over a year, but one or two of the younger ones may yet turn out to be real outdoorsmen.

Ya know what? It seems to really help that I can work with them prior to the actual trips, getting them used to the gear and skills needed a bit, and maybe even the idea of the whole “outdoors” thing. I am reminded of my weekly scout meetings in the 70’s, where we’d discuss the trips we’d had and plan new ones, and I’m reminded of that college course and the classroom time we had before the trips. I’m thinking that maybe this kind of time send beforehand is a good idea, maybe even necessary, for truly successful group trips.   

2:08 p.m. on March 30, 2012 (EDT)
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I used to organize Internet hikes in the Sierra and Rockies.  A bunch of strangers would come together and share a few days doing something they probably wouldn't do on their own.  In general the extra cost was the price of the wilderness pass - and the expense of getting to and from the trail head/tail.

The biggest problem was to insure ahead of time that the hikers fully understood the amount of effort that would be involved and the gear they would need.  Those that were truthful in their abilities and resources ended up having the most fun.  I was able to help them plan better and also to insure that they were in the right mix of people.

The trips had to include and attend to desires of the more experienced (or the ones that thought they were) and the ones who were generally new at it.  My job was to insure the slow bunch were getting as much as they could out of the experience.  The ones who wanted to take a more strenuous approach were generally on their own for a good portion of time, but trail planning allowed all to rejoin after a few days.

The eastern Sierra are generally unique in that they allow a relatively short hike of 1 or 2 days into a spectacular base camp. This then gives a diverse set of opportunities for those who have more interest, want to just explore a bit hanging around to fish or take photographs.  For those who have the ability and experience to be more adventurous, they could take on a 14er or a cross country trip through a high pass or an alternate route to rejoin the group later on. 

I provided the opportunity for them to see places they would probably never have the excuse to get to and I saw my job as keeping as many as possible out of obvious trouble.

Of all the trips, I only had one significant problem.  During the trip planning, she passed herself off as a male who had had long trips packing in diverse environments.  Other than the shock of finding out it wasn't a he, it turned out on the third day this outing was to be her second overnight.  She was not such a happy camper.

I enjoy the experience of a guide in areas that are higher risk and it just makes sense to have a knowledgeable somebody along to point the way and to help get there.

4:42 p.m. on March 30, 2012 (EDT)
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LOL EtdBob.

Make the stories up??!! I wish! Look at speacock's story about he/she!

For group hikes, I find it's good to start people off with a local day hike. If anything goes wrong, you can call for help. They get to break in new boots (or discover that flip-flops just don't cut it) and by the end of the day, they'll have a more realistic idea of how fast they are as compared to others, and how difficult the distance and elevation actually is.

The same holds true for kids groups (like Scouts or church groups), but you have to be a lot more careful. In Canada's Mountain Parks (Jasper/Banff) you are required to take a risk management course before you take a 'custodial group' out for a hike.

The next step up is camping trips at established campgrounds and  mountain day hikes. That's the reward for most people, getting to go to new places and see new things, without having to go through all the traumas that new hikers run into.

Every spring, I take new people out on a backpacking prep course, and we do two nights and three days carrying our gear and food. I do that in May, which in the Alberta Rockies means it can be warm and sunny, or cold, wet and snowing. If someone makes it through that, I have a pretty good idea how they're going to behave on the real thing.

The only problem I run into is with out-of-town clients. There all you can do is start easy the first few days and move to harder things if it looks like they'll be okay.

4:43 p.m. on March 30, 2012 (EDT)
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Speacock said:

Of all the trips, I only had one significant problem.  During the trip planning, she passed herself off as a male who had had long trips packing in diverse environments.  Other than the shock of finding out it wasn't a he, it turned out on the third day this outing was to be her second overnight.  She was not such a happy camper.

I would really like to know what she was thinking. 

4:58 p.m. on March 30, 2012 (EDT)
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i prefer hiking with family or good friends because group dynamics among strangers can lead to bad places - as a number of you have observed.  and while i will often day-hike alone, i don't overnight unless i'm with at least one other person or a small group. 

one of the local hiking groups tries to address some of the risks via full disclosure about the hikes, dividing them into "easy" and "vigorous" hikes, but it of course depends on the participants to self-select.  typical March/April day hikes for "vigorous hikers": 18 miles, 4200 feet vertical gain; 19 miles, 6600 feet vertical gain.  an annual hike runs 30 miles and 7500 feet vertical gain.  let's put some of these hikes in perspective.  in the white mountains, a presidential traverse, encompassing Mt. Adams through Mt. Pierce, covers about 20 miles, 9 summits, and about 8500 feet of vertical gain.  i did that hike a long time ago.  It's a monster day, 12-14 hours of strenuous work. 

likewise, doing 30 miles and 7500 feet in a day means at least the same amount of time, probably more, and we only get about 13 hours of daylight by late April.  how willing do you think the experienced hikers with this group will be to deal with someone who can't keep up? what do you think happens if someone shows up and ends up falling behind?

i'm probably going to play hooky from work at some point and do one of these so i can check out the group and get in a good day's workout (these long hikes are all on Tuesdays - who gets to take Tuesdays off all the time?).  i'll report on the group dynamics after i'm able to walk again.... (kidding, sort of). 

 

 

9:45 p.m. on March 31, 2012 (EDT)
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I am almost always solo all 4 seasons. Typically for a week at a time although I do take shorter trips(3 day/2 nighters) when time constraints will not let me do anything longer.

One thing I do love is night hiking in winter when the sky is clear and the moon is out.

With the snow on the ground I sometimes do not use a headlamp(fields/balds)unless of course I am heading into an area where extra light is a necessity due to the terrain being somewhat technical to some degree and the potential for injury is present.

I am kinda mixed on the whole hiking in groups thing. I would like to do more of it but at the same time I am somewhat leary of this being I could end up with a group of people that do not have a clue of what is going on.

We have a few groups here that I have been considering getting involved with but haven't decided whether or not I will get involved with them as of yet.

I know one thing for certain, if I were to be going on a multiday group trip in say late winter I would most certainly be sure of who I was going with.

Finding out that one is not who they say they are in regards to their experience level is not something I want to learn when the white stuff is flying and they have the deer in headlights look when we get to camp and they have a summer weight bag with a 3 season UL tent.

I have taken people out over the years but I always ask them for a list of gear that they are bringing nothing short of 2 weeks in advance so I can plan accordingly. This way I at least have a heads-up on what I am getting into and if needed I can compensate for what they lack in regards to gear and maybe loan them what they lack.

The one thing I cannot loan out is common sense and experience though. This is the one scenario that worries me the most being anyone can misrepresent themselves being there is so much info readily available nowadays(thanks internet)or they have the gear and no real knowledge of how to utilize it(large wallet syndrome.)

This not only puts them in a bad spot but me as well.

At the same time all I have to do is pick ones brain a bit and I can draw my own conclusion as to where their level of experience actually resides.

Then again most of the people in my area think I am nuts for the distances I travel so noone really want to go with me anyways lol.

So I suppose my group hiking vs solo choice is pre-made to some extent.

3:08 p.m. on April 11, 2012 (EDT)
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10:18 p.m. on April 11, 2012 (EDT)
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I hike with my bro, or one other person usually. I tried a hiking meetup and I was too slow for their good.Don't know why they cared if I lagged. Not like we had a reason to be roped together. If a hike group is to rigid, it is not for me. Unless it is a training course taken to learn the things they are teaching and therefore need a structure. I go with groups for rock climbing but the hike is just part of getting to where the activity begins.

12:34 p.m. on April 12, 2012 (EDT)
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giftogab said:

 I tried a hiking meetup and I was too slow for their good. Don't know why they cared if I lagged.

The 'stay together' idea comes from the standard rules for guides. In many situations there is a very real risk of people getting lost - the leaders turn left and the laggards turn right.

The leader of a hike has a moral (and sometimes a legal) responsibility to get everyone home safely.

Think of it as 'no man left behind'.

12:41 p.m. on April 12, 2012 (EDT)
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Rick-Pittsburgh said:

The one thing I cannot loan out is common sense and experience though. This is the one scenario that worries me the most being anyone can misrepresent themselves being there is so much info readily available nowadays(thanks internet)or they have the gear and no real knowledge of how to utilize it(large wallet syndrome.)

This not only puts them in a bad spot but me as well.

Agreed. The most common problem I've found is with people who overestimate their knowledge and abilities. A close second is thinking expensive gear will make up for their personal weaknesses.

Hiking groups can help with that a bit by keeping newbies safe while they learn from more experienced people.

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